Once, Friday night's lights shined brightest of all

In competition with apathetic students, resurrecting the football town atmosphere is proving to be a challenge.

Published October 20, 2006

BROOKSVILLE — Mike Browning and Jay Lowman and Katie Bechtelheimer are seniors at Hernando High School.

Their last names say they are members of longtime local families. And this fall they have been tailgating before football games and hanging go-get-’em signs around school and painting parts of their bodies in Leopard purple and gold.

“A lot of our parents had tradition back in the day,” Lowman said last week. “We wanted to start our own tradition.”
Tough task. They are trying to buck the local effects of a national trend: People just don’t seem to care about high school sports the way they once did. Football games under those Friday night lights don’t seem to matter as much to many.

It’s hard to cite specific statistics to show this decline of interest or intensity or simple attendance. The National Federation of High Schools doesn’t keep those numbers. Neither does the Florida High School Athletic Association.
But folks who have been around for a long time don’t need numbers to know.

“I will tell you,” said Mark Griffith, Hernando Class of ’88, who is now an assistant principal at the school. “Through the late ’70s, and through the ’80s, and into the early '90s, you really couldn’t find a seat in the stadium anywhere.

“The crowds were bigger. I don’t think there’s any question.”

Kick it back even more than that.

Eddie McIntyre is 86. He’s a former teacher and coach and played on Hernando’s undefeated football teams in 1938 and ’39.

“There was a lot of competition between small towns then, between Bushnell, Inverness, Brooksville, Dade City, Crystal River,” he said. “You knew people on the other team. And you know competitively you’d rather beat your friends than somebody you don’t know.

“They didn’t have all the recreational tools and the cars and the affluence that’s around today. Little things meant a lot to people.”

“Growing up, one of the things you learned very early … you did not lose to Pasco,” said Tom J. Deen Jr., Class of ’43. “You did not lose to Dade City. You might as well leave town if you were a jock football player … and you got beat by Dade City.”

So it was. For decades.

“Our stadium and our gym were full,” said Ernie Chatman, Class of ’67, who is the cross-country coach now.

“Friday nights, people didn’t ask what you were doing,” said Dan Merritt Jr., Class of ’81, an attorney in town. “You were going to the football game to see the Hernando High Leopards.”

Said Steve Manuel, Class of ’65, the general manager of local radio station WWJB 1450-AM: “That was just sort of the thing to do.”

Martha Steen Lambert and Jim Kimbrough graduated in the ’50s. They went to the games.

Bruce Snow and Bob Barnett graduated in the ’60s. They went.

Buddy Selph and Dave Donato graduated in the ’70s. They went.

Darryl Johnston and Leslie Taylor graduated in the ’80s. They went.

But it changed, Chatman said, in the mid ’90s. “Maybe a little bit before that. That’s when I began to see a more distinct difference.”

The peak might have come on Nov. 1, 1991, when Pasco, ranked No. 1 in the state, played at Hernando, No. 7, and won 28-21 in overtime. Some 8,000 people were there that night.

That was only 15 years ago, and what seems like a long, long time.

Folks around here say the crowds aren’t what they were because there are so many new schools around the county and because there’s so much more to do and because the team hasn’t won as much of late.

“Fans now go to see the winning teams,” Chatman said. “Not just 6-4 teams or 7-3 teams. Championship teams. Whereas years ago you just went to support the local teams. A lot of people were kin to a lot of people.”

“Now the parents never show up for anything,” said Don Hensley, Class of ’68, a chiropractor downtown who has been a team doctor for the Leopards for the last 30 years.

“Today,” said Mike Steele, Class of ’93, who was a student manager for that ’91 team that went up against top-ranked Pasco, “a pep rally is just an opportunity for kids to get out of school early.”

“We only had one school,” said Bob Barnett, Class of ’64. “You went to school with everybody, you saw everybody’s parents, and they all went to the ball games. I mean everybody.”

“But kids have so much to do now,” said Tom Browning, Class of ’76, Mike’s dad. “Too much to do, in my opinion.”

“It just kind of got into a downturn,” said Donato, Class of ’75, the president of the booster club. “It’s hard to put your finger on.”

But whatever the reason …

“Now I go to one or two games a year,” said Jeremy Moore, Class of ’99. “Maybe.”

Andrew Runge went to games when he was a boy. “Now it’s just, like, well, there’s a game tonight,” the Class of ’02 grad said. “And I won’t be there.”

But people who do still go to the games say the Friday night crowds last year were a little bigger than the year before. This year’s crowds, they say, are a little bigger than last year’s, even though the team is 2-4. Home ticket sales, which don’t include student tickets or fans with annual passes, said Griffith, the assistant principal, suggest attendance this year is probably around 1,500 to 1,700 a game.

“I think people see what’s going on locally, and they want to try to get closer to the way things used to be — bring that pride back, that tradition,” said Jason Yungmann, Class of ’92, who hosts the weekly “Coaches Corner” radio show on WWJB. “We need it. We need that tradition back here.”

Browning, Lowman and Bechtelheimer are doing their part.

They’re Brooksville kids through and through.

Lowman’s great uncle was Sheriff Sim Lowman. Browning’s dad and uncles run the Browning Insurance Agency.

Bechtelheimer’s parents: Tricia Paff, Class of ’77, cheerleader, and Mike Bechtelheimer, Class of ’76, quarterback.
Katie Bechtelheimer has a teal-green Grand Am. Lowman and Browning drive Ford pickup trucks and like to shoot skeet in the Lowman family’s field.

They hang their signs Thursday night at school.

“My mom was real mad at us one Thursday night ’cause we didn’t get back till 11,” Browning said.

They get together with up to 75 or so of their schoolmates for tailgating Friday afternoon.

“We load up grills in the backs of our trucks,” Lowman said.

Then they “paint up” with Wal-Mart-bought purple and gold.

“We’re trying to bring back that whole football-town atmosphere,” Bechtelheimer said.

A couple weeks ago, though, only Browning and Lowman made it to the Springstead game. A bunch of their buddies had fall-ball baseball.

They didn’t make it to the game the next week at Lecanto. The drive was a bit too far.

And a lot of their tailgate mates were not there with them at a big volleyball game last Thursday. They had gone instead to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens down in Tampa.

The amusement park bills that as the “must-see Halloween event of the year.”

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.